Is Telework Good for Productivity? Data from Gallup says YES

Alex Margolin February 09, 2020
woman sitting behind laptop

As the future of work begins to take shape, some of its contours are coming into focus. Remote work, for example, is on the rise, and appears to be emerging as a major aspect of employment in the future. In the US alone, 43% of employees already work outside the office at least part of the time, a jump of 4% since 2012. They are also spending more hours working remotely than they did in 2012.

Questions about the future of work often focus on how technology is changing the nature of jobs. One big change is where those jobs will be performed. A traditional office is no longer the only option. A growing number of companies are choosing the distributed workforce model – with no office at all.

“Today, thanks to “always-on” computers in our pockets and the proliferation of communication and collaboration software like Zoom and Slack, work isn’t a destination as much as it is a state of being,” according to Talia Goldberg of Bessemer Venture Partners.

That state of being is best embodied by high-quality employees, who are demanding – and getting – greater flexibility from their employers.

But is it good for the company? The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) tried – and failed – to calculate the cost savings for government offices that had a work-at-home policy.

“Agencies are limited in their efforts to evaluate the net cost savings associated with their telework programs,” it stated in a report in 2016. “As a result, Congress does not have the information it needs to assess the true value of telework.”

But a major report from Gallup focusing on workforce engagement provides real data on the issue. And the answer to the question of telework helping productivity is a resounding yes!

What the Gallup Data Says

According to the Gallup data, 53% of people polled say job flexibility is “very important” in choosing a job; 51% would change jobs in favor of one that offered greater flexibility; and 37% said they would switch jobs for one that offered an option for remote work at least part of the time.

Those numbers indicate how much employees value flexibility in their jobs. But for Gallup, those figures are significant primarily as they related to employee engagement.

“Engagement is not an exercise in making employees feel happy — it’s a strategy for better business outcomes,” the report states. “As decades of Gallup research shows, when employees are engaged their performance soars: Highly engaged workplaces can claim 41% lower absenteeism, 40% fewer quality defects, and 21% higher profitability.”

The new report shows that people who worked remotely 3-4 days a week posted the highest engagement numbers. Gallup shows that 41% of this group was engaged, compared to just 30% of those who never work remotely, and 37% of those who work remotely either 1-2 or 2-3 days a week.

The numbers begin to decline to 32% for those who worked remotely 4-5 days a week, indicating that some interaction with managers and co-workers was optimal.

Those who work remote 3-4 days a week was also the group with the highest number of people to “strongly agree” with the statement that they make more progress in their workday.

Company Benefits of Employee Telework

Companies that allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time benefit in a number of ways. The most tangible is in the area of cost savings. Companies that pay for employee transportation costs have less travel to cover. They also save on office space since they can share a cubicle with others who work at home part of the time.

Other common advantages include:

Reduced Absences – Employees, especially those with long commutes, are more likely to miss a day in the office than a day working from home.

Improved Recruitment and Retention – As the statistics provided by Gallup show, more than half of employees would change jobs for greater flexibility. Conversely, if their jobs provide the flexibility they seek, they are less likely to switch to a company that offers the same or less flexibility.

Increased Productivity – When employees are satisfied with their working conditions, they work harder for the company and share in its success. Engagement drives productivity.

Reduced cost on office space – Studies have shown that companies can save $11,000 a year on office spending if employees work half of their hours remotely.

Ramifications for a Distributed Workforce

The Gallup report did not address a fully distributed workforce, and its findings cannot be applied to teams working together from different locations. Those teams have different office dynamics, communications styles, and access to co-workers and management than teams with a central office.

In the kind of workplace measured by Gallup, working remotely is a change from the norm, not the norm itself. Therefore, the finding that employees are most engaged when they spend at least one day in the office does not apply to distributed teams.

However, distributed teams face the challenge of keeping the entire team united. Those same Gallup results can help managers of distributed teams keep everyone moving in the same direction.

Gallup showed that contact with management and coworkers at regular intervals keeps people more engaged. This could apply to distributed teams as well, in its own fashion.

Some tips for ensuring that a distributed workforce feels like a single, united team:

  1. Develop a ‘One Office’ mindset

A distributed team has a greater challenge to building a company culture. While offices provide people with common experience for bonding, managers for distributed teams need to find other ways to instil a sense of belonging. It starts with making the employee experience a priority for the company, and must extend to all satellite offices, some of which may only be small teams of several members. If management thinks in terms of how company policies effect all employees, the mindset will take root and eventually grow and blossom across all divisions, no matter how far apart they are.

  1. Hold company-wide meetings regularly

While most people might say they want as much independence as possible, Gallup shows that employee engagement is enhanced by being connected to management on some level. Hold company wide – “all hands” – meetings weekly or at some other regular interval so that management can connect with every employee often. Going too long without holding meetings allows some employees to feel alienated, and if the company is serious about adopting a One Office mindset, the regular communication is essential.

  1. Everyone uses the same communications tools

Every employee at the company should be connected to every other employee so that they can communicate instantly. For example, if Slack is the designated tool for internal communications, make sure everyone is using Slack to communicate among each other.  Same for video conference. If Zoom is chosen, use it across the entire workforce.

  1. Plan company-wide on-site meeting at least once a year

The best way to encourage and enable employees to feel comfortable with each other, to share information, and ultimately to collaborate on projects is to spend time face-to-face. Fly your entire workforce into your central location – or some neutral area – and spend a week engaging in team building activities. The time people spend together will only bring benefits to the entire company and create positive feelings among the team.

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